This month we have a meteor shower, the Earth reaches its most distant position from the Sun, and we have some great views of the planets. But first, let's make sure you know your way around the sky.
In the north-western skies the Big Dipper (Saptarshi) is still visible, and you should be able by now to use two of its stars, Merak and Dubhe, as pointers to help you find Polaris, almost at the north celestial pole.
Do you notice three bright stars-Vega, Deneb and Altair-forming a triangle on the eastern horizon? This is the great Summer Triangle that signals the arrival of summer and will dominate the night sky for several months, so take some time to become familiar with it. Just below the Summer Triangle you will notice the zodiacal constellation of Sagittarius (the Archer), where you will find Jupiter, the king of the planets.
West of Sagittarius, you should easily be able to identify other zodiacal constellations, namely Scorpius (the Scorpion), Libra (the Scales), Virgo (the Virgin) and Leo (the Lion).
On 4 July the Earth reaches the aphelion-the position in its orbit where it is farthest from the Sun. We are then about three per cent further from the Sun than we are at the closest point, the perihelion, reached in early January. Most people are surprised to learn that our planet is farthest from the Sun in midsummer! Note that the seasons are caused by the tilt of the Earth, not by the distance between the Sun and Earth.
Of the other planets, Mercury is at its greatest elongation west of the Sun on 1 July, when it will rise in the north-east about an hour before the Sun. It won't be easy to see this planet in the dawn sky, and by the end of the month it will be hidden behind the Sun. Venus is now starting to emerge from behind the Sun, but it is still a very shy "evening star", setting in the west only half an hour after the Sun.
Mars, in Leo, is still visible this month, low in the west immediately after sunset. Saturn will be very close to Mars and significantly brighter. On the evening of 6 July, don't miss the chance to see the meeting of Mars, Saturn and the crescent Moon just below the "sickle" of Leo (see star chart). The giant planet Jupiter is at opposition to the Sun on 9 July, when it will be appearing in the south-east at dusk and setting in the south-west at dawn.
Meteor watchers should prepare for the Southern Delta Aquarids, a meteor shower which peaks on 29 July. If you happen to be outside after midnight on or around that date, you might see some meteors in the southern sky. If you miss them, don't worry, because in mid-August we will have the Perseids, the best meteor shower display of the year.kedarbadu(at)gmail.com